American writer, Paul Auster is known (perhaps notorious), for a kind of existential popular fiction often using tropes of the detective genre. Commentators have labelled Auster as a postmodern novelist though he is equally considered a critic of postmodernism. That’s not the debate for this review, but whatever cultural label one applies, any Paul Auster novel is going to be pushing some stylistic and thematic boundaries and taking its reader into curious new places. And this is exactly what Oracle Night does.
Oracle Night, Auster’s thirteenth novel is a kind of mystery, a kind of existential snapshot of a few defining days in a man’s life. The novel sets out some fairly lofty ambitions but ultimately falls short.
The starting premise is an intriguing one. Novelist, Sidney Orr is recovering from near fatal illness that is never really explained. On a random chance he buys a blue notebook and immediately starts writing in it, thinking it is his return to writing, re-starting his career and finally getting his life back on track after his brush with death.
The notebook and the story he starts takes him down a path of connected events and coincidences and some really unusual and quite dark situations. This curious path makes this a compulsively readable novel, and we follow along just waiting to find out what happens next and where it is all leading to. Ultimately this compulsive reading turns out to be one of Oracle Night‘s only strengths. The ending is disappointing and as a whole the entire story feels like it was muddled together in order to prove the core existential comment.
While things do happen, quite significant and tragic things, and the character’s lives change and all, the whole conceit of the notebook and the mystery of what happens when he writes in it just seems to flutter off into the background like it was forgotten. It’s possible that was the intention of the author all along – that all of these connected events and chances and unfortunate situations don’t really add up to much more than more events. The novel also goes into a lot of details about the stories Orr writes, so Oracle Night is almost several stories within one novel. Orr has a lot of trouble figuring out the logical trajectories of his stories and ends up abandoning the lot of them. This could be understood as a contrast between the logical and meaningful series of consequences in his fiction, and the seemingly meaningless consequences in his own life. But there just seems to be too much emphasis on the chain of events starting with the notebook to dismiss it as so meaningless.
Also, towards the end of the novel, Orr reflects on an anecdote about learning that written words have consequences and power. Considering his series of fateful events stemmed from his starting to write in the blue notebook, this could be seen to be the overall point of the story. Orr solves the main mystery of the book, what’s wrong with his wife, by way of writing down in story form a theory about her and her relationship with a family friend which is presented as the actual truth, justified by a musing that people just know stuff before they find it out for certain. Perhaps this is the power of Orr’s words. Or maybe that’s just another overly orchestrated and ultimately arbitrary big theme getting in the way of the story.
Can Oracle Night be enjoyed as a story in its own right without getting into its higher ambitions of themes and purposes? Not for this reader. As a whole book there just isn’t enough development and resolution to have any sense that the plot was worthwhile without looking for a deeper meaning.
Stylistically, Oracle Night might take some warming up to for some readers. It’s a first person narrative and has an air of a pulp detective novel because of it, especially as the story winds though a series of events that always sound like they’re going to be leading towards some great mysterious revelation. The prose is quite plain, but still expertly written, and this simplicity gives the story a straightforward style that contrasts with its convoluted potential meanings.
At several points in the book, a lot of background information on side characters and other events in the protagonist’s life is given in footnotes. This unusual device adds nothing to the story or the novel as a whole. It’s distracting and pointless as anything but a writer taking liberties with the novel’s form.
By the end of the book, Oracle Night feels too much like a mash of ideas sketched out in a hurried novel. And while these are good ideas, big ideas and indeed worthwhile ideas for any writer to explore, as a whole, Oracle Night falls short of its lofty ambitions.